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GM avoids spotlight in Ottawa over ignition switch recall

General Motors CEO Mary Barra

Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

Political manoeuvres by Conservative MPs on the House of Commons transport committee have enabled General Motors Co. to avoid in Canada the intense scrutiny the auto maker has faced in the United States stemming from the failure of car ignition switches that led to the deaths of 12 Americans and at least one Canadian driver.

GM is subject to five separate U.S. inquiries or investigations, and the auto maker's chief executive officer, Mary Barra, has testified at two U.S. government committee hearings.

In Canada, neither GM officials nor Transport Minister Lisa Raitt have been summoned to testify to the transport committee about the failure of ignition switches that led to the death of a Quebec driver last year and the recall of 2.6 million compact cars and other vehicles in the two countries. About 368,000 vehicles have been recalled in Canada.

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The federal department of transport says it received several other reports of fatal collisions involving GM cars that are included in the recall and is looking into whether the defective ignition switch played a role in those cases.

The Canadian situation involving GM stands in sharp contrast not only to the actions U.S. politicians have taken, but also to the high-profile Toyota Motor Corp. recall in 2010.

An attempt by NDP MP Hoang Mai to force a transport committee investigation into the GM recall was thwarted in April. At that time, Conservative MPs used their majority on the committee to force an in-camera vote on a motion calling on Ms. Raitt and GM officials to testify. Because that vote was in camera, none of the MPs are allowed to say what happened and whether it was defeated.

"It's not public, so I can't tell you what happened," Mr. Mai, MP for Montreal-area riding Brossard La Prairie, said in an interview. "Obviously you know it, they have a majority."

Larry Miller, the Conservative chair of the committee, said the committee has not turned its attention to GM because it is too busy addressing rail safety regulations after the disaster in Lac-Mégantic last summer.

"We're in the middle of a very, very important study that Canadians want an answer to. People in Lac-Mégantic want an answer. And we're staying the course," Mr. Miller said in an interview. "Nothing else. You know, I guess if this committee didn't have anything of high priority in front of it, maybe that's something they'd consider."

People can question that decision, he added, but "you can't do both at the same time. You've got to set priorities."

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Mr. Mai and other opposition members of the committee said the committee's future schedule does not include appearances by Ms. Raitt or GM officials.

He said he wants to know what, if anything, Transport Canada knew about the issue going back well into the 2000s, when the problem first became apparent to GM.

"We want to know what Transport Canada has known and what they've done to protect public safety."

David McGuinty, the Liberal Party's transport critic, said there is no reason to think the committee would be unable to deal with another matter while it continues its study on rail safety. He pointed to Bill C-3, legislation dealing with the aviation industry, which was considered by the committee in February and March while the rail safety study was set aside.

"We always have room for extra meetings, it's a common practice," he said. "I don't see this as a rationale for not considering this in a meaningful way."

When Toyota vehicles around the world were recalled in 2010 because of suspected sudden acceleration, senior Toyota Canada Inc. and Toyota North America executives were called to Ottawa to testify after Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda appeared before U.S. Congressional hearings. No deaths in Canada were attributed to the Toyota sudden acceleration issue.

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At the time, Conservative government MPs supported a transport committee investigation. "Americans have been learning about some of the gut-wrenching stories that have come out in the aftermath of these revelations," Pierre Poilievre, then the parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said. "We think Canadians are entitled to the same answers, and we hope to work with our opposition colleagues in order to give them those answers."

A spokesperson for Transport Canada said the department was informed of the GM problem in February and has held "ongoing" conversations about the recall with General Motors of Canada Ltd. since the beginning of that month. Asked about the committee's decision not to study the GM recall, a spokesperson for Ms. Raitt said it's up to committees to determine what they will study.

Asked if the federal government's shared ownership of 110 million shares of GM stock affects how Transport Canada views the GM recall issue, the spokesperson said it was inappropriate to comment given that investigations are ongoing.

GM Canada said in an e-mail that it is working with Transport Canada to make sure lines of communication are open.

"We will continue to offer our full cooperation with the federal government as we work through these difficult issues," the company said.

GM outlined the U.S. probes in a filing it made last week with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

"We are also the subject of various inquiries, investigations, subpoenas and requests for information from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, Congress, NHTSA, the SEC, and a state attorney general in connection with our recent recalls," the filing said. NHTSA is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

GM Canada acknowledged in a news release issued March 29 that the fatal crash last year of a driver in Quebec is related to defective ignition switches, which involves cars effectively shutting themselves off so that power steering fails and airbags don't deploy in the event of a crash.

Five lawsuits have been filed in Canadian courts seeking class-action status.

Among them is a suit against GM, GM Canada and Delphi Automotive PLC, the supplier of the ignition switch, that was filed in Ontario Superior Court by Suzanne and Daniel Baker of Cornwall, Ont., whose 22-year-old son Nick died in a crash in 2012. The family received a recall notice for his 2006 Saturn Ion compact about 18 months after he died.

The family's statement of claim said he died when his car suddenly lost power and veered across a county road. The airbags did not deploy and investigators were unable to pinpoint the cause of the crash.

"I think the government should certainly look into it," said Russel Molot, an Ottawa lawyer who is representing the family. "But I think that if there is any kind of fine that those funds should be distributed among the victims."

A spokesperson for Transport Canada said the department has investigated the Cornwall case, but could not comment further because of the lawsuit.

Consumer advocates also believe Transport Canada and GM officials should answer questions.

"Even if you got no substance, I think it would be an important message that the industry is answerable for what happens in Canada, too," said George Iny, director of the Automobile Protection Association.

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About the Authors
Auto and Steel Industry Reporter

Greg Keenan has covered the automotive and steel industries for The Globe and Mail since 1995. He also writes about broader manufacturing trends. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto and of the University of Western Ontario School of Journalism. More

Parliamentary reporter

Kim Mackrael has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail since 2011. She joined the Ottawa bureau Sept. 2012. More


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